The evolution of John Kearns up to his Fosters Comedy award win has been more tortoise than hare – and it's all the better for it
The fact that John Kearns is not in a hurry is one of his biggest assets. And I mean that both offstage and onstage. Kearns may be only 27, but he was not an overnight success: fully seven years elapsed between his first gigs at the University of East Anglia and his Best Newcomer win in 2013 – which is about par I'd say, for comedians really finding their feet (hardly any comics become very successful very quickly, such as Peter Kay in his early career, and more recently Josh Widdicombe).
That makes Kearns's winning show last year – Sight Gags For Perverts – kind of like a slow-cooked stew. There was depth of flavour. What's interesting is how he's reacted since that show won the newcomer award. At the moment he won, Kearns was, unusually, without management, and he took his time in considering the post-Fringe offers (and ended up in the creativity-nurturing bosom of PBJ – a good place to nuzzle).
This year, it would have been a no-brainer for Kearns to step up – to make a big statement, put his name in lights while he was, tsss, hot news. That would involve sacking off the Free Fringe and doing a paid show, with a billboard budget, a street team wearing his trademark monk's wig and false teeth, and a ball-breaking PR. All of which work well for some comics, but Kearns does it his way. Instead he did none of those things – no PR, no flyers, no posters, just word-of-mouth and that award recommendation.
He even went back to the same venue – the Voodoo Rooms – which I suspected might be an error, a decision made in fear of flying the nest and an attempt to manage expectations, but it clearly worked. The safety of that familiar space (one which is good for the comedy punter too) perhaps helped Kearns relax and focus on the show. It has to always come back to the show. Again, he had the option to upgrade to a bigger venue near Bristo Square – the nerve centre of the Fringe – but no.
In other words, Kearns didn't push too hard, too early. Consciously or otherwise, he figured out that if he's in comedy for the long haul, forcing the issue might be a backward step.
This has been borne out onstage too – not only in his unhurried style on stage, but also in how he approached his new show, Schtick. To return to my slightly dubious slow-cooked stew analogy, it's like he's popped last year's show in the fridge overnight, and next day – voila, you have Schtick, an even tastier version of the original. That's to say, Schtick is a refinement of Sight Gags For Perverts – no over-stretching or throwing out babies with bathwater. Out went the scat material, and the ridiculous finalé (which I did rather enjoy) and the crowd work has taken a back seat. This year, more gags, a touch of melancholy, and the pace has been taken down even further (here's my review in full).
If I thought Schtick lacked anything, it was a bit of killer instinct, a sort of consummation of all the build-up – even though it is heavy on the laughs. But that can come. Kearns would no doubt say himself he's not the finished product, and his onstage persona has been something he's been working on for many years – I remember him improv-ing his way through a private press viewing of his short 2011 show, in which he played a mad cook ballsing up a dinner party. At one point he was under the table, humping my leg, for like, ages. There were only three of us in the room, I could have had him done for sexual assault.
What was obvious from that strange afternoon just off Grassmarket was that the lad had balls. And it's that very same courage that I think is behind his contrary approach to being a successful comedian – which in turn is precisely why I believe Kearns is a talent who won't fizzle out. I'll lop an arm off if he does.
I wonder if there is a little caution in there, though. At some point the temptation to take a bigger room, or to succumb to things like marketing and reaching out for numbers might prove too much. Now he's won the Big One, there will suddenly be more expectation and demand and offers than he'll be used to. His audiences will probably go really weird for a while, as every Tom, Dick and Harry comes to check him out. But judging by his deft touch with a wide range of audience – which was one of the most notable aspects of Sight Gags With Perverts – he may be ok on that front, and building his comedy muscles on the Wild West of the Free Fringe will have undoubtably helped, too. So Kearns will need all his guile and careful judgment to navigate the next few years, and I'm confident that he will.
Which is all to say, congratulations to John and do check out his show when it inevitably comes to the Soho Theatre later this year. And to echo what many comics have said today on Twitter, the award couldn't have gone to a nicer bloke.